A top Moroccan newspaper editor, convicted and jailed under the penal code for his writings, has been freed after serving a year in prison.
“I denounce my imprisonment and conviction under the penal code, and I hope I am the last journalist to be tried under it,” said Rachid Nini, editor of the country’s most popular daily, al-Massae, on Saturday.
Nini was convicted for “trying to discredit and influence a court and publishing information on crimes that haven’t been proven”. The charges stemmed from his newspaper columns that attacked powerful members of society.
He also thanked the pro-democracy February 20 movement for supporting his case, despite having once written quite negatively about the group.
Nini was welcomed by a rapturous crowd of supporters, friends and relatives standing outside his home, as he gave a defiant address, accusing the authorities of treating journalists as criminals and demanded they stop sending reporters to prison to muzzle the press.
Mohamed ben Abdessalam Andaloussi, deputy chairperson of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, was among the activists who welcomed Nini after his release from prison.
“We condemn the way the authorities have behaved and we want to see more freedom in the country. We ask for press freedom to be respected and we urge the authorities to stop saying it will do one thing whilst doing another in practice,” Andaloussi said.
The trial and conviction of Nini in June outraged Moroccan journalists because it was conducted under the criminal code rather than the media law, and was seen as an attack on freedom of expression. The media law does not allow for the imprisonment of journalists.
Rights group Amnesty International has campaigned for his release saying Nini was a “prisoner of conscience” punished for highlighting corruption and abuses by the kingdom’s authorities, especially the security services.
An international media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, described in its 2010 report a rise in harassment of local media in Morocco over the last few years. It said there was a pattern of court cases against journalists and newspapers publishing material the government disagrees with.
The media also have been targeted by officially sanctioned advertising boycotts. Two leading weeklies were forced to close in 2010 and a critical daily moved online.
Pressure for reforms has been mounting in Morocco before uprisings elsewhere in North Africa, and rights activists are demanding Morocco stop what they say is the practice of using the criminal justice system to silence journalists.
Morocco’s new government, led by a moderate Islamic party which until late last year was in the opposition, has said they will try to end old practices of jailing people unlawfully and abusing the rights of dissidents.